22 August 2007

Paris: The Quality of Light

Before you actually travel to Paris, you may have been there.

You might have imagined, as I did, quays wrapped in light evening fog or gritty neighborhoods of cheap shops and trinket stores. You might have yearned to see Paris come alive in the morning with delivery trucks blocking narrow streets and outdoor vendors already hawking their edibles in street markets.

I did. I imagined all this, based on photos and stories and books. And then I experienced it all first hand.

I was never disappointed. Paris fails to disappoint, time after time.

Much of my early vision of Paris was fashioned by magazine ads for such perfumes as "L'Air du Temps" and "L'Heure Bleu," which inevitably featured pale photographs of the Seine and Notre Dame or Pont Neuf. My teen-aged imagination took flight, and a vision of Paris was formed.

It was palpable. I could smell it and taste it, too.

Eventually, I saw it for myself. And I photographed it.

I love the photo above for the way it captures the watercolor quality of the light over Ile St. Louis and Ile de la Cité at 6 p.m. Our feet were aching, and we stopped to rest on precarious seats above Quay d'Orleans.

It is an ordinary picture of an ordinary moment. And yet because it met my expectations, I wanted to savor it.

And so I did.

Those of you who post here know exactly what I mean. You've experienced this too, if not in Paris, then somewhere else.

Where and when did you have your "Yes, this is it" moment?

Paris: A Still Life by an Open Window

I am always intrigued with the composition of food in photographs and paintings.

This fascination goes back to childhood, when I spent winter Sunday afternoons armed with a bag of oranges and my parents' coffee table books, which usually focused on travel and history.

One book of black-and-white photos combined both, and in it was a feature on Colonial Williamsburg. There was a photo of fresh on a windowsill warmed by the lambent late-afternoon sun that always intrigued me.

They were root vegetables, I believe, and it seemed to me that they were waiting to be prepared for some deep and rich and earthy-tasting supper dish.

Poring over these books gave me a taste for home decorating or “shelter” books, especially those involving kitchens. I am always interested in the choice of food props. Bread, onions and artichokes? Berries, cheese and lemonade? Who decides? How do they decide? Do they look at kitchen color and come up with a contrast?

I remember looking hungrily at a fall table decorated with bittersweet. Atop the table were pewter tankards, probably filled with hard cider, a loaf of rustic bread, a hunk or two of cheese, and a bowl of apples.

It seemed like a fine fall meal to me.

When I was 16 years old, we piled into the car with Grandma Annie on an October afternoon and visited my grandfather’s sister, Annie’s sister-in-law, who lived on an 1870s-era farmstead 30 miles into the country.

Before we left, Frances prepared an impromptu meal of ham, cheese, rolls, applesauce and cold milk. This humble meal has remained a favorite of mine on busy fall weekends.

In Paris, we had a kitchen window that looked out on an airshaft. Just before 5:30 p.m., the light was right for food photography. I shot this photo of a baguette and some aromatic Pont L’Eveque cheese with a bottle of wine after a long afternoon in the Marais. I like the way the shadows add depth to the food.

It tasted wonderful, too.

21 August 2007

Cooking in Paris: Warm Pepper Salad

You eat well in Paris on 200 euros day. Very well. Breakfast will be your cheapest meal, followed by a good lunch and dinner. You can probably work in a snack, too.

But I didn't have that kind of money to spend. We were trying to keep our trip under $5000. By planning ahead and buying food items that complemented one another, my husband and I ate well on less than 20 euros a day. It helped that we rented an apartment with a small - aren't they all?  - kitchen.

I improvised as well, as I do at home, pairing ingredients in new ways. One day after a morning of traipsing around the 13th arrondissement and taking buses across the south side of the city, I had peppers, onions and sausage on hand plus half a baguette.

I cut the sausage into bite size pieces. I sautéed it and the peppers and onions in minced garlic and olive oil, and topped them with a sauce of aoili and mayonnaise blended flavored with Provencal sauce from a jar. I buttered the bread and browned it in the skillet. The meal was served with a very reasonable rosé table wine from Provence.

The meal and a short power nap fortified us for another round of discoveries in the afternoon.

Improvised meals remain my favorites.

19 August 2007

More Memories of Annie's Kitchen and Blueberry-Nectarine Crisp

I wish I could take you back to the comfort of Grandma Annie's kitchen.

It was quite ordinary as kitchens go. A square room with no built-in cabinetry, it had a deep farmhouse sink and white appliances. There were three or four mismatched cabinets around the perimeter and a table in the middle, not a scarred wooden table, but a newer white enamel-and-chrome model with slats that pulled out to make it larger.

On cool, dreary days, the kitchen was redolent of vanilla and almond and buttery aromas and perhaps chopped fruit in an old stoneware bowl. Annie had no newfangled gadgets, only time-tested utensils of wood and stainless steel. She used an old meat grinder, the kind you clamp on a table or cupboard, and an old-fashioned potato masher.

Her conversation was not deep, for she was not on the outside a deep woman. But she posessed an inner core of steel and a firm convictions when it came to her Catholic faith and her unwavering sense of right and wrong. She was generous, always buying this or that for her grandchildren. I did not truly appreciate her until she was long gone.

Her kitchen remains, though four years ago the family home on Dunlap and Bellevue in the heart of old Frenchtown was sold to a couple who gutted much of it and made it stronger, bringing it into its third century. The kitchen was the first room finished and when I visited it while the remodeling was in progress, I could feel Annie's presence. It was a mid-fall evening and as I stood in the kitchen with Denise, its new mistress, I could sense Annie's approval.

"Yes," I could hear Annie say to me in the deepening dusk. "This feels right. It is still my kitchen."

How lucky that Denise and her family have the sense of goodness my Annie had! How lucky for us that Annie's house - the home Pépere bought about 1883 - is in such good hands. Its new occupants were already friends, now they are part of our extended family.

As I baked this dessert in my own kitchen tonight, I though again of Annie and the passage of time and the timeless chopping and peeling and mixing that is part of what we do in kitchens, what we have done for centuries. I wonder if Denise feels part of that. I must ask her next time we talk.

Blueberry-Nectarine Crisp

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup brown-sugar/Splenda mix
  • 1 cup cold Smart Balance (in place of butter)
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 4 cups fresh blueberries
  • 5-6 fresh nectarines. cored and diced
  • 1/2 cup fructose
  • 3/4 cup cognac-white wine blend
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons cornstar]ch
  • dash cinnamon

Blend flour and sugar. Cut in butter or Smart Balance and pecans for a coarse mixture. Set aside.

Dice nectarines and combine with blueberries in large bowl. Blend Cognac-wine mix with cornstrach, vanilla and sugar until sugar dissolves. Pour over fruit and gently toss. Pour fruit into greased 9x9-inch baking pan. Top with crust mixture. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven on middle rack for about 40 minutes. Serve warm with French vanilla ice cream.

Note: My husband and I loved this recipe, which is adapted from one on Epicurious. My husband raved, saying it was a good balance of sweet and tart. Annie would have loved it.

18 August 2007

Easy Skillet Ratatouille

There comes a weekend night in late summer when the chill sets in and we close the windows for the first time since early June. We don forgotten sweaters or sweatshirts and throw a quilt on the bed. My husband tunes in the Green Bay Packers game and I settle down with the September issue of Vogue or a good mystery.

It's ratatouille time. Saturday night, I made a skillet version of my favorite dish. In the oven was a whole chicken stuffed with garlic, onion, rosemary and thyme. Rice from the Camargue was baking in a sauce of tomatoes and herbes de Provence. So I sliced my vegetables and sauteed them in a skillet.

Ratatouille in the Skillet

  • 1 small eggplant
  • dash sea salt with herbes de Provence
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small zuchinni
  • 1 small summer squash
  • 2-3 small peppers, red or green
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 small can diced tomatoes

Wash and slice, but do not peel the eggplant. Strive for uniform size pieces. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with sea salt and herbes. Cover and set aside for an hour or so until water drains from the eggplant.

Slice the zuchinni, squash and peppers, too. Sauté each, one at a time, in olive oil. Sauté only until eacg vegetable begins to turn golden brown. Set aside. Slice onions and mince garlic and do the same with these. Set aside. Finally, drain the eggplant and add it to the pan. Return onion, garlic, zuchinni, squash and peppers to the pan. Add diced tomatoes and allow the mixture to simmer on low heat for 15-20 minutes. Season with additional herbes de Provence, sea salt and pepper, if you like.

My husband noticed that the tomatoes took on new flavors from the vegetables.

The entire meal, which was preceded by a simple salad of cherry tomatoes and lettuce, tasted of autumn on the rise and hinted of the Midi.

I often think of ratatouille as a transitional dish, one that is best savored as summer wanes and fall begins to show its burnished colors. It was the perfect meal on a dark and chilly August night.

15 August 2007

Financiers Pistache

Financiers Pistache, Paris 2007

A decade ago when I started sampling French patisseries, I was hard-pressed to find recipes for some of my favorites, and I did not have a vast supply of French cookbooks I have since acquired.  I've updated this post from 2007 to include recipes: 

Buying our first baguette on our last trip to Paris, I spied a tray of pistachio financiers and felt my willpower melt away. I have always loved the color and flavor of pistachios. I bought two of them and carried them back to our cozy apartment.

We loved their intense color and flavor.

And thus began my pistachio obsession which hit its peak in Paris. I liked asking for them. Fee-non-see-ay pee-stash may not roll trippingly off the tongue, but it is fun to say. I only wish I had taken more photos of them.

Here are several recipes, published a few years after I wrote this post:

Why not make a rich financier pistache part of your Mardi Gras celebration?

13 August 2007

A Place Tucked Away

There is nothing quite as intriguing as a place tucked away behind something else or deep within a neighborhood. Perhaps it is an unexpected find, like the glass studio my husband and I recently found in an old industrial district along the water, or the jazz club hidden behind a warehouse in a nearby town known for its belching smoke stacks and tough neighborhoods.

Whenever possible, we eschew main streets for alleys and twisting passages, at least when we have the good luck to be walking in Paris, or some other French city. It is an urban form of shunpiking and usually leads to charming surprises.

The tiny bistro above is just north of Notre Dame Cathedral on Ile de la Citie, just yards from the spot where Heloise met Abelard. We were on our way to meet Richard Nahem of Eye Prefer Paris that early evening in May and did not have time to stop.

"We'll come back," we promised ourselves, but we never did. We will - I hope - in 2008.

Another place tucked away is St. Paul Village, sandwiched between Rue St. Antoine and the Seine in the Marais. Passages and alleyways and courtyards are filled with shops, many of them purveyors of antiques of one sort or another, or objets d'art. High tourist season was not yet upon us, and many of the shops were still closed or just opening for the season. It reminded me of Door County in November, quiet but still alluring.

Since my husband and I are both film buffs, as well as Francophiles, we just had to search out "Le Grand Colbert," a restaurant tucked behind the Palais Royale and made famous in the movie "Something's Got to Give," with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

What is your favorite tucked-away find anywhere?